A strange near-anniversary

I previously mentioned another (almost) noteworthy anniversary this year. Going back to check on the facts, I realised that not only is the story rather obscure but that the event in question happened in 1898, not 1899. Nonetheless, I find the circumstances interesting and even strange, so shall tell the tale anyway, in the hope that so will one or two others.

It is simply this: that in 1898 phyllloxera was detected for the first time in the vineyards of Constantia, on the farm Sillery (no longer there). Phylloxera, was, of course, the appalling littlle North American creature that had brought havoc and destruction to the vineyards of France since the 1860s, and worked its way progressively around the world doing the same thing there. It was abundantly clear by 1898 that the only way to respond to the infestation was to plant vines on American rootstock.

In fact, Constantia, in decline, but still the most famous winegrowing area of the Cape, was by 1898 one of the sites where American rootstocks, and grafted vines too, were being grown by the million to replace the decaying vineyards of the Colony.

That was late in the story. Earlier, on hearing of what was happening in Europe, there was some premonitory panic in the Cape, but also some ignorant complacency amongst the government and winegrowers. But then, in 1886, it became clear that the pest had already slipped in and had settled down: interestingly it was the French Consul in Cape Town who in that year alerted the authorites to signs of phylloxera in a vineyard in Mowbray (these days a vineyardless suburb, of course, but fittingly near the historical origins of Cape wine production). Presumably the Consul, unlike most locals, had actually seen affected vines, at home.

Anyway, investigations were started in a hurry, and the aphid was discovered in other vineyards in the areas near Mowbray. Then it was noted on farms in the Stellenbosch region. Through 1886 more farms were discovered to be affected. By 1890 dozens of vineyards were known to have phylloxera, across the wider Stellenbosch and Paarl areas, and through the 1890s it reached out into the more outlying areas until most vineyards were affected.

So why not Constantia until 12 years later? Isn’t that strange? Given that it took as many years as there are kilometres between Mowbray and Constantia for the little bastard to get there, though in other directions it went much much further, much much faster. An eventual worth regretfully noting, anyway – 111 years later.

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